New Legislation Would Toughen Penalties For Impaired Wrong-Way Drivers

The sight of a vehicle speeding directly toward you on the highway can lead to a split-second decision that may result in life or death. In fact, an NBC 5 Investigates analysis of state records in 2015 revealed more than 50 people have been killed and nearly 300 have been injured by wrong-way drivers in Illinois since 2005.

Now lawmakers in Illinois are pushing for tougher penalties for impaired wrong-way drivers; a move they say will save lives.

“It would effectively make driving the wrong way down a one way street an aggravating factor in a DUI case,” said State Rep. Mke Zalewski of Riverside.

Zalewski is sponsoring House Bill 303, which has been approved by the state house. Currently, a judge cannot take wrong-way driving into consideration during sentencing. However, the proposed law would allow judges to add additional prison time for individuals convicted of aggravated DUI, where wrong-way driving was involved.

Riverside police chief Tom Weitzel was recently named chair of a new statewide committee seeking to make Illinois roadways safer. He said he approached Zalewski for assistance in drafting new legislation after researching wrong-way crashes in Illinois. Weitzel also referenced NBC 5 Investigates in his research.

“I repeatedly saw wrong-way driving crashes in Illinois where victims were either killed or severely maimed,” Weitzel said. “The impetus for this legislation came to me from MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).”

Weitzel referred to the death of Steven Smith, an off-duty Chicago Ridge police officer killed by an impaired wrong-way driver in September, 2015, near Oak Brook.

Investigators said Sara Lopez drove south for eight miles in the northbound lane of the Tri-State Tollway before crashing into a car in which Smith was a passenger. Lopez is currently serving a five year prison sentence for aggravated DUI.

Lisa Smith said her son, a US Marine reservist, had only been a full time police officer for seven months when he was killed in the crash. According to Smith, Lopez’s punishment did not fit the crime.

“People are getting a slap on the wrist for something that’s a serious crime,” Smith said.

However, Smith said she is excited to hear about the proposed law that would create more severe consequences for impaired wrong-way drivers.

“It will make them twice before they get behind the wheel of a vehicle and decide to drink and drive,” Smith said.

HB 303 still needs to be approved by the state senate and Governor Bruce Rauner before it becomes a law.

New information released by the Illinois Department of Transportation shows an additional four people were killed and nine were injured by wrong-way drivers state-wide in 2016. A spokesperson for IDOT told NBC 5 Investigates the department is aware of newer technologies that could deter wrong-way driving and is continuing to evaluate the feasibility and applicability of such systems within the state of Illinois.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Tollway said the system is currently evaluating the best methods for detecting and deterring wrong-way drivers, including reviewing sensor technologies to determine if they may be effective in preventing wrong-way driving. A spokesperson also said signs have been installed at Illinois Tollway ramps to deter wrong-way drivers and more signs could be added as a result of the review.

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